Emotions – Working with Anger
Michelle McDonald *
Anger seems to be an emotion that people have a lot of difficulty with, so I’d like to talk about how to deal specifically when such an emotion occurs. Say you’re sitting and anger appears and you think, “Oh no – anger!” – that’s resistance. But what about, “Oh, great, anger!”? Do you see the difference? We are usually very accepting of the moment when the bird sings, but with anger it is more difficult.
I’ve exaggerated this over the years just to learn how to work with it, so that when anger appears, “Great, this is another opportunity to learn how to work with this and make friends with it, rather than try and batter it away into repression”. Then there’s no freedom, because we’re always unable to work with it. If you’re very clear, especially if you have a lot of energy, when anger arises and there’s no resistance, it’s very, very pure. The ability to just drop into the body and feel it as body sensations – there might be heat, or pressure or tightness, and you just get out of the way, it’s like letting a volcano erupt if it’s very extreme.
A few years ago, I did a retreat on the Big Island and during the retreat the volcano erupted and I’d never seen it before, it was like this liquid fire just pouring up into the air. It was the first time in my life that I actually had the sense of this energy and how to work with it, it’s just like the energy the earth has, and if you step out of the way, you can just let this energy come and go. It’s built up pressure usually, it’s heat and it’s fire, and it’s pressure and it’s wonderful if you can get out of the way. It’s usually not that pleasant, but it can be joyous just to feel it as an energy and let it come and go. There’s nothing more joyous because you’re no longer a victim of it anymore, you no longer have to run from it anymore. This is a quote from Ryokan. The rain has stopped, the clouds have drifted away, and the weather is clear again. If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure. Abandon this world, abandon yourself, then the moon and the flowers will guide you along the way.
If your heart is pure, anger isn’t a problem. The word anger is just like the word Michelle, or rug or glass, they’re just words, concepts, and the experience of it is very different from the word. What is your experience of anger? These things don’t have to be a problem if you’re willing to explore them, they are just energies. This first level of working with an emotion in this way is when we’re very clear. We’re not identified with it – when the anger when it comes, we just feel it very clearly as sensation, it goes.
The next level is when there’s more thought involved with it. Often emotions can be seen like the recipe of a cake, so if you take flour and salt and eggs, sugar, cocoa, butter, and you mix it up and cook it, you get a cake. If you take a past experience and the memory of that and some thoughts about it and some body sensations, usually you’ll get sadness or anger, and in this particular case, I’m talking about anger. Sometimes when an emotion is occurring there’s a lot of thoughts that go with it. You might not be identified with it still, this is a level that is moving from feeling it as pure sensation to having a lot of thought with it, and if you see it as a recipe, if you see that it’s just thoughts and feelings and sensations, coming and going, again you don’t have to be identified with it, you can just notice the thoughts and the physical sensations. You might go back to the breath and let it come and go. Again, this takes a lot of clarity, this is a strong mind at work that notices it coming and going. It might not disappear very quickly, like in the first case I’m talking about, usually they come and go and don’t stick around very long, in the second case, it’s going to be a little more sticky, like bubble gum, but still you’re not so identified with it, and it comes and goes.
The third level is when we get more identified with it, which is often the case. You know those signs that say, Beware of the dog. I always think, beware of content. With emotions, it’s really like you need the sign, beware of content, because it’s the story and believing the thoughts about it that makes us suffer so much. I’ll give you an example of working with anger. One time I was sitting a retreat and this teacher from Burma came to this three month retreat I was doing. I’d done retreats for nine years before this, and we’d never used notebooks, but this teacher introduced this idea of writing down some of the things that had happened at the end of the sitting, so everybody in the hall had notebooks and pens. The idea was that you didn’t write until the end. But this woman sitting next to me couldn’t restrain herself and she’d write every few minutes and she used a pencil and so I’d be sitting there and just the anticipation of her picking up the pencil would drive me nuts, and she’d pick it up and it would be that scratchy pencil sound and I’d get completely swept away with anger. And I’d feel really right.
The hardest thing about anger is when you feel right. You’re totally identified with it when you feel right. And there’s always a good reason why we feel right. “She shouldn’t be using the pencil, she shouldn’t be writing during the hour”, and I’d get angrier and angrier because I’d get righter and righter and she kept getting more wrong and more wrong. And I would just be a mess, just furious by the end of this sitting and then I’d have to go out to walk and come back and face it again and again and again, angrier and angrier, and finally, the white flag. I’m sure you know what I mean by the white flag. “Okay, there’s nothing I can do but learn how to work with this, besides leaving the course?”
There’s many things I want to say about this particular part of working with emotion. When you notice that you get very involved with the content, and for me in this case it was in being right, but it might be sadness, like “my mother died when I was eleven” – whenever there’s a content going on and we’re very identified in it, that’s drowning in it, that’s indulging. Usually I’ve discovered that that means we’re avoiding the feeling.
When a thought pattern repeats itself a lot, and we all have our favourite top channels, channel four, seven, eight, over the time that you sit you’ll notice there’s certain tapes that repeat themselves endlessly. If you look closely, you might find there’s a feeling there that you’re avoiding. And the moment you feel it, it’s like pulling this thorn out of the heart, it’s usually very simple.
For most people I’ve noticed, it doesn’t mean that that tape can occur and that they can just drop down and feel it and it’s over, usually it takes some time and patience of not wanting it to appear, of not wanting it to get over, it’s very tricky because these are feelings we haven’t wanted to feel, and it takes a lot of compassion for yourself, so you might get a little taste of how to work with anger in one moment and that’s great. And maybe a little while later you might get a taste of how to work with jealousy and that’s great, and then over time, that white flag has tremendous power because we’re at peace, we’re not at war with what’s happening. We’re not afraid, we don’t have to control, we don’t have to push them away.
The thing that’s wonderful about our minds and life, is that at any point we can wake up and see it clearly. We might be three years into avoiding something, or five lifetimes, whatever you believe in, and then in one moment you see it and you’ve learned it.
There’s one other thing I want to mention about working with emotion and that is if you’ve been practising a long time, and there are very constant repeating thought patterns, sometimes it means looking at the content, and not necessarily during a retreat. Because going on a retreat is trying to do a very different thing, but if you notice that something repeats over years, it usually means that there’s some change is needed in your life and that you actually need to look at the content. And this is very important because anything can be used negatively or positively. Meditation can be used to avoid, you don’t have to use it that way, but often there can be a tendency to do that.
Besides patience, which is a very interesting thing, defined as “the ability to endure the desirable and undesirable” and it’s said to manifest as tolerance, and it’s a wonderful quality because I think it helps us to develop trust, there’s our faith. I think our faith and patience are very connected, and it might be you learn this once in a sitting and you get overwhelmed a lot, or you repress it or indulge it, and then in another sitting you get a taste of how to work with it again. And in the case of working with my guilt, it really did take me ten years to learn how to work with it. Once you learn how to work with it one area, you can apply it to anything. It’s the same story, it’s that little white flag.
What’s amazing about human beings is that we have these imaginary wars going on all the time. You think of this territory that we call our human body, and then there’s a head that we all have, with its imaginary war. If there’s an imaginary war going, it’s really good to do whatever you can do to get out of it – it might mean, if you’re sitting, do whatever you can do to stop it, it’s just not worth it. You can’t figure these things out. Content drives us nuts, you can spend lifetimes trying to figure these things out. It merely means dropping down to the feeling and feeling it and letting it go, and that’s the place that’s most important – learning to let it go. You can’t let something go unless you feel it, or see it, but the whole emphasis in Buddhism is in letting go. That’s the freedom.
There’s one other thing I wanted to talk about. Last year there was a friend of mine who’d been practising about as long as me, and he came to me with a confession. He said for the first fifteen years of his meditation practice he was using the practice to feel adequate as a person, to get a sense of appreciation and approval from the teacher and to find a feeling of family that he’d never had in his own family. And I think that there’s a big step missing in our culture, and it’s spreading throughout the world, this missing step. In a culture that’s spiritually healthy, when adolescence hits, there’s usually some guide to help the person move from a child’s psyche, which is unprotected and soft and needs to be guided. There’s a step that women and men take in this process in their culture to feel good about themselves as men and women, a process where the child learns how to face the world and develop a mature psyche.
In the old days, any properly operating mythology would help a child move into the adult world and take a place there and feel like they belong there and have a lot of faith in that. I think most of the people I run into in terms of teaching have missed that step and therefore in a healthy culture what would happen is that once the adolescent finds that feeling of adequacy then the next step is searching for something deeper, looking deeper than life and death, that spiritual quest. Things are a little mixed up now because many of us never had that initial step.
I think we often expect meditation to yield more than is meant to. I don’t think that meditation will solve all our problems, I don’t think it is necessarily going to make one feel adequate as a man or a woman or provide a home for people and when we understand this I think that one can really go deeply into meditation and I think that’s what prevents people from going deeply in this time, in this culture, because people are wanting it to yield more than it’s meant to, so they go into retreat expecting so much and it’s working on a very deep level. Meditation is meant to change our perspective on life completely, it’s very deep, it’s not working on those other levels, which are very important because it’s how we function in the world of form and we bring back to that world of form all that we learn on retreat. The happiness in this meditation realm is very subtle.
I went to see the Miles Davis concert on Sunday night. He’s really a master in that world of jazz, and what I noticed that was deeply moving to me was his use of silence. He had a muffler on his trumpet, it wasn’t that he had a really loud trumpet, but he’d walk to the side of the stage and play the subtlest, lightest sounds that were so moving, but you had to be so still. When he was playing his most beautiful subtlest piece, people were leaving, they were just pouring out of the hall because they were afraid of a traffic jam I think, and he was playing the most amazing piece of music that you would hear in a lifetime. I don’t think they were appreciating his subtlety. He would just play a few notes and there would be silence for fifteen seconds, it’s like having your heart tickled, very light.
Meditation is bringing forth our inner potential or inner home, the happiness is like that, it’s not based on experience, it’s based on being free of experience so that no matter what’s happening we don’t get overwhelmed by it. The freedom is not getting overwhelmed by what happens but not having to go into a cocoon and die while you’re still alive.
I’d like to end with a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyen: “If only it were all so simple, if only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
* Michelle is a Vipassana Meditation teacher.